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Thursday, Oct. 14, 2004 10:14 pm

Backdraft

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I feel sorry for Mark Dyment's first-grade teacher. I've never met the lady and don't know who she is; I just know she had her hands full.

Dyment has a full-throttle personality. Perpetually revved up and endlessly enthusiastic, he must have spent half of every semester sentenced to stand in the corner for rambunctious behavior.

As any mom can tell you, though, the secret to keeping a kid from bouncing off the walls is to channel that energy into productive activity. And as an adult, Dyment found a way to put his high-octane attitude to good use: He became a Springfield firefighter and spent more than a decade on Engines 1 and 5 -- the "runningest rigs" in the city. Eventually he added a half-dozen extra assignments, such as arson investigator and counselor to kids with a fixation about fire.

Four years ago, he took on the most daunting duty of all: recruiting minorities for SFD. Only three of Springfield's 211 firefighters (1.4 percent), are black, and the administration is under a consent decree to bring the percentage closer to that of the city's African American population, which is about 15 percent. That's a big gap. Still, if anybody could budge a boulder up a steep hill, Dyment looked like the guy.

And boy did he try. I met Dyment when I was working on a story about SFD's recruitment efforts, and we had long conversations about the formidable nature of his task. He would get so worked up, talking about which ideas might work, that he'd spout off like a teakettle at full boil, steam whistling out the top.

One thing that surprised me was his openness to radical concepts. Despite being the poster boy for a notoriously conservative organization, Dyment embraced all manner of novel notions. He was willing to nix psychological evaluations, happy to endorse points for residency, and enthusiastic about exempting anyone who had an associate's degree in fire science from taking the written exam. He was constantly pushing CPAT -- the Candidate Physical Ability Test, a rigorous eight-part trial designed just for firefighters -- in lieu of SFD's easier drill.

Dyment was especially intrigued with the idea of grading the physical test in the same way as the written test: with a real score rather than pass/fail. That way, he reasoned, we would get the cream of the crop.

I get his logic. After all, if my house is ablaze, who do I want climbing a ladder to carry me and my children down from my second-story window? The firefighter who aced the written exam and impressed the "oral assessment" panel with his or her loquaciousness? Or the one who can bench-press 350 pounds?

Come to think of it, why has the physical test always been pass/fail even as the written test has become such a fanatically followed fetish that it's graded to the decimal point? Surely the old stereotype about race and athletic prowess had nothing to do with this tradition.

Springfield Police Lt. Rickey Davis -- well-known rabble-rouser of the Black Guardians -- just chuckles. "Did you ever watch any sports on TV?"

Davis, who worked with Dyment on the recruitment team, says they discussed this idea and many others.

"Our last conversation, he was very frustrated with the process. He was upset with the banding issue. He just seemed very tired," Davis says.

Banding was the one idea Dyment couldn't stomach. It's a method of grouping candidates with similar scores and allowing the chief to hire any one from a certain band. Dyment saw it as a license to hire candidates with special connections (for example, SFD Chief Bob Bartnick has a daughter and son-in-law who will likely appear on the eligibility list).

Dyment couldn't even conjure up a half-hearted endorsement when he was asked about banding during a radio interview. Before he got off the air, Ernie Slottag, the city's director of communications, arrived at the station to smooth over Dyment's remarks.

Days later, he resigned from his position as SFD recruiter. Why? Dyment is, for once, mum. "I've been told not to talk to the media," he says.

This resignation doesn't mean he's out of a job. In fact, it won't affect his paycheck one bit. He is still a captain in the fire department, and, thanks to the union, there's not much that anybody can do to change that.

But SFD has lost the firebrand recruiter who not only accepted but embraced his impossible mission. Meanwhile, this weekend, our future firefighters will take a physical test so easy some can literally stroll through it. It will be graded pass/fail, and they'll be ranked in bands so these plum jobs can go to whomever the administration wants.

And the big boulder Dyment was valiantly pushing can just roll right back down the hill.

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